Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

51Q: How quickly will the Lakers’ young core progress?

Los Angeles Lakers' D'Angelo Russell, left, poses with with Jordan Clarkson (6) during the team's NBA basketball media day in El Segundo, Calif., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle placed somewhere between promising and good for their ages last season.

None of that is to say plain “good.”

When Russell, Clarkson and Randle shared the court, the Lakers scored fewer points per possession than the NBA’s worst offense and allowed more points per possession than the league’s worst defense. In all, those units got outscored by a dreadful 16.0 points per 100 possessions. A teenage Brandon Ingram, the draft’s No. 2 pick, is unlikely to swing fortunes quickly.

Ingram (19), Russell (20), Randle (21) and Clarkson (24) carry significant value, but little of it is tied to their ability to produce right now. When will that change?

It’s important to acknowledge reality of the present before setting expectations for the future.

Here’s how each core piece ranked in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus last season:

  • Russell: 69th among 82 point guards
  • Clarkson: 119th among 175 guards
  • Randle: 90th among 93 power forwards

Russell ranked in just the 36th percentile in points per possession when finishing a play as pick-and-roll ball-handler. With Russell guarding, his man shot 47%.

Clarkson’s man shot even better, 48%. Not limited to defense, Clarkson has yet to turn any skill in his all-around game into a major asset.

For all the hype about his ball-handling and passing, Randle turned the ball over more than he assisted baskets last season. He also blocked fewer shots than Jeremy Lamb, a shooting guard who played more than 1,000 fewer minutes.

Ingram is a skinny teenager. Like most rookies, he’ll face growing pains as he jumps to the NBA.

These players have a long way to go – and that’s fine. Time is on their side.

The Thunder once went 23-59 with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James missed the playoffs his first two seasons. Even Michael Jordan spent his first three years on losing teams.

Simply, young teams rarely win in the NBA. At least a modicum of experience is crucial.

But don’t assume these young Lakers are destined for success.

At one point, Charlotte thought it had something with Emeka Okafor (No. 2 pick, Rookie of the Year in 2005), Raymond Felton (No. 5 pick, All-Rookie second team in 2006) and Adam Morrison (No. 3 pick, All-Rookie second team in 2007).

Drafting highly touted players who produce immediately doesn’t guarantee long-term success.

If the Lakers look at the bigger picture, they’ll monitor their young core’s development and proceed as they gain more information. They won’t overreact to the most likely outcome: another losing season.

It could be another year or two or even three until Russell, Clarkson, Ingram and Randle ascend into playoff contention. As long as they show progress, that’s OK. Those four should be graded on a curve for their age.

The Lakers might be in a good place if they don’t get in their own way. But with a fan base accustomed to championship contention and a front office on a self-imposed deadline to advance in the playoffs, do you trust he Lakers to remain patient?

DeMarre Carroll considers this his first season with Raptors

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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BURNABY, British Columbia (AP) — DeMarre Carroll is ready to start over.

A prized free-agent acquisition for the Toronto Raptors last year, Carroll played only 26 regular-season games because of a right knee injury that had to be surgically repaired in January.

The small forward worked hard to rejoin the club in time for Toronto’s run to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, but wasn’t the same player the Raptors signed to be difference-maker from the Atlanta Hawks.

And while not yet 100 percent after a month of rest followed by a strenuous summer of rehabilitation, Carroll is looking forward to hitting the reset button.

“I look at it as basically my first season (with Toronto),” the 30-year-old Carroll said as the Raptors opened training camp this week. “A new season, a new beginning. I’ve just got to come in and get back to playing DeMarre Carroll basketball when I’m healthy.”

Apart from locking up DeMar DeRozan to a long-term contract and bringing in Jared Sullinger, the Raptors had a relatively quiet break.

However, finally having a healthy Carroll would be a major bonus for a club looking to take the next step.

“A big difference,” DeRozan said. “It was tough for us last year to figure out ways to play without him. Even when he was playing early on he was hurt (and) even when came back he wasn’t his full self and we still managed to make history.

“To have him back at the start of camp, start of preseason, to be able to implement him fully is going to give us everything that we’ve been searching for.”

The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Carroll only returned to the court for live action last week, and said his offseason regimen included making sure all the proper steps were taken to ensure his knee is ready for the season.

“We took a hard approach about it and we did it the right way,” said Carroll, who took a month off after the playoffs in hopes of reducing the swelling. “Last season it was more of a rush, trying to get me back. We didn’t go through the whole thing we needed to go through to get the knee to where it needs to be. I feel that we’re on the right track.”

Carroll, who averaged 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds last season, came through the first two days of camp unscathed for the Raptors, who open their exhibition schedule on Saturday at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena against the Golden State Warriors.

“(The team) has talked about bringing me along slowly, not trying to kill myself in pre-season,” Carroll said. “Just be ready and healthy for the first game of the season.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Carroll’s presence on the floor, including his ability to hit from three, helps create openings on a team that is thin at small forward.

“Really gives us the spacing that we need with Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar handling the ball, attacking of the dribble,” Casey said. “That’s what we need from him, his spacing and his defensive presence. He did a great job accepting that role last year. He takes us from a good team to a pretty good team when he does that.”

For his part, Carroll said the mental side of the injury was tough, but something he forced himself to push through.

“You’ve got to stay strong, especially in this league. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you,” he said. “It can be draining to keep on going through the same thing, having the same setbacks. But I’m happy right now because I haven’t had any setbacks. I’ve just got to look at the positives and keep trying to work towards the future.”

ESPN’s new NBA contract lowers value of Disney stock

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 22:  In this handout image provided by Disney, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant (L) celebrates the Lakers' NBA championship with Goofy at Disneyland on June 22, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disney via Getty Images)
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ESPN and Turner signed new national TV contracts worth $24 billion over nine years, a huge revenue increase triggering a corresponding salary-cap rise.

That wasn’t the only consequence of the deal.

Richard Morgan of the New York Post:

Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible downgraded Disney stock on Monday in response to “a massive increase in NBA costs” for ESPN.

Disney’s deal to televise NBA games, with its increase in step-up costs over last year, could shave as much as 5 percent off pre-tax profits.

This isn’t necessarily bad for Disney-owned ESPN. It just shows how much more favorable the old national TV deals were for the TV networks.

The NBA is now getting a fair share of the money – which, if you’re the one paying the money, isn’t as good as paying a bargain rate.

Serge Ibaka says he wants to stay with Magic forever, and they want him long-term

Serge Ibaka jokes around while posing for a photo holding a plastic Flamingo during Orlando Magic's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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The Magic took a major risk trading for Serge Ibaka, who’s heading into unrestricted free agency next summer. Rather than have Victor Oladipo (who’ll be a restricted free agent) and the No. 11 pick (who’s on a four-year contract), Orlando could come away empty-handed within a year if Ibaka leaves.

So far, everyone is saying the right things.

Ibaka, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“I’m looking to stay here to play forever — for [as] many, many years as possible,” Serge Ibaka said during the Magic’s media day.

“I’m not really worried about my contract year or my long-term,” Ibaka said.

“One of the things I learned playing on a good team is when the team wins, when you make the playoffs, everybody looks good. So that’s what will be my focus right now, because if we win and make the playoffs, everything will take care of itself.”

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, via Robbins:

“We certainly traded for Serge thinking long-term, and that’s our expectation,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said.

I’d be surprised if the Magic and Ibaka didn’t discuss the parameters of his next contract, with the Thunder’s permission, before making the trade. But the Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents any binding unofficial arrangements, so nothing is set in stone.

Ibaka is already talking about making the playoffs, and that would go a long way toward convincing him to stay in Orlando. But what if the Magic miss the postseason, a distinct possibility? How keen will Ibaka be on returning then?

He’ll have other suitors – unless he has a down year. Then, how badly will Orlando want him back?

That Ibaka and the Magic are entering the season with the stated intention of a long-term arrangement means something. But it means only so much.